Years of acrimony and in some cases outright animosity between north and south Fulton County have already forced a redrawing of the map of Georgia.
A handful of new cities — Sandy Springs, Milton, Johns Creek — have been incorporated in the last few years largely because north Fulton citizens wanted to snip ties with Fulton County government in Atlanta.
Now, encouraged by that success, they want to make the separation complete by cutting Fulton County in half and creating a brand new Milton County in the northern section. And because the issue involves the unholy trinity of race, class and partisan politics, it has sometimes brought out the worst in people.
South Fulton, which is largely black, mostly Democratic and less affluent, holds the balance of power because of its larger population base. North Fulton, by contrast, is largely white, prosperous and Republican. Almost every important issue to come before county leaders is filtered through those two perspectives, with each side feeling itself ill-used by the other.
Personally, I think the drive to create Milton County is foolish and in some ways vindictive. We’ve already got 159 counties, more than any state other than Texas. And with the multitude of counties and cities in metro Atlanta, the region is already paralyzed in trying to deal with issues that cross legal boundaries.
However, the frustration of north Fulton residents is also understandable. Because south Fulton basically controls county government, the majority on the County Commission has tended to dismiss even legitimate concerns of north Fulton voters and leaders. North Fulton leaders complain that they are treated by south Fulton as captive taxpayers, and too often they’re right.
The often petty, even self-destructive nature of the feuding between the two communities is on view in the current controversy involving Fulton County Commissioner Lynne Riley, who represents north Fulton.
Riley also serves as chairman of a legislative advisory committee created to study the feasibility of Milton County.
To some in south Fulton, that’s a conflict of interest bordering on treason. Six south Fulton legislators have filed a complaint with the county ethics board, demanding an investigation and calling for Riley to resign. Bill Edwards, a south Fulton commissioner, went so far as to complain that “it’s like having a terrorist in Congress.”
That’s nonsense. Edwards may not like it, but Riley’s involvement in the Milton County effort accurately reflects the opinions and wishes of her constituents. It is an abuse of the county ethics process to try to use it to silence Riley on a political matter.
In fact, it’s hard to understand what Edwards and his supporters are trying to accomplish. Is their action likely to make north Fulton feel more like part of the county or more intent on going its own way? Does it build a bridge or burn a bridge? In every way I can think of, the ethics charge further poisons the atmosphere and adds to the fervor behind creation of Milton County.
Even if Riley were to resign from office, the person who replaced her would be even more committed to a permanent break with Fulton County. If Edwards and other south Fulton leaders want to preserve a unified Fulton County, as they should, they need a better battle plan than dismissing their neighbors’ anger as illegitimate. They’ve been trying that strategy for the last 10 to 15 years, and it’s a loser.
So far, Riley is refusing to cooperate with an ethics board investigation. That has led ethics board chairman Don Edwards (no relation to the commissioner) to talk of seeking a subpoena if necessary to compel her to testify.
“We have an obligation to determine whether there is a violation,” Edwards said last week.
However, compelling the testimony of an elected official about legitimate political activity is a bad idea, and if carried out it is guaranteed to drive the wedge between north and south Fulton still deeper.